Gustav Mahler never lived to finish his Symphony no. 10, leaving behind incomplete sketches. Mahler, clearly aware that his end was coming, again faced death, but the final mood is triumphant, quite unlike the quiet resignation that permeates Der Abschied, the last movement of his penultimate completed piece, Das Lied von der Erde. On Thursday, the Oslo Philharmonic and Vasily Petrenko gave what was at times a searingly intense performance of Mahler’s final, unfinished symphony.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

After his death following a long bout of bacterial endocarditis in 1911, Mahler's widow Alma approached several composers – Ernst Krenek, Shostakovich and Schoenberg among them – to finish the orchestration, and some attempts were made to finalise the most complete sketches, but most declined, leaving the score in its unfinished state. It wouldn’t be until 1959 before the British musicologist Deryck Cooke turned his attention to the score and started work orchestrating and finalising Mahler’s score. The final edition was completed in 1976, just a few months before Cooke’s death.

The symphony starts with a sombre introduction in the violas, before being joined by the whole orchestra with a heartbreakingly beautiful melody in the violins. Mahler’s Tenth is a work where the strings take centre stage, the woodwinds and brass primarily providing colouristic detail. While this characterisation is true for the overwhelming majority of symphonic repertoire, the sheer sound of the string section is vital for this symphony. Often, the Oslo Philharmonic strings can sound muffled and tinny, even when a large orchestra is being used, but on Thursday, the sound was large and velvety, transcending the poor acoustics of the Oslo Concert House. The first movement inexorably led towards a dissonant climax, before quietly withdrawing; in terms of programmatic content, it is seductively easy to see it as Mahler reluctantly accepting his own impending death.

Petrenko’s approach to the second movement, the first of the symphony’s two scherzos, was an aggressive one, the musical phrases taking on a mocking tone. The alternating Ländler-like sections were almost grotesque when placed in that context. There was an odd sense of triumph permeating the whole movement. The third movement Purgatorio brought something resembling a sense of calm, but with violent outbursts potentially lurking behind every turn. The final outburst plunged straight into the fourth movement and second scherzo of the symphony, a violent, tempestuous contrast to the seeming sense of peace of the former movement.

The violence of the fourth movement soon gave way to a wonderfully lilting calm that never lingered for long before being hurled back into the abyss. Perhaps the most unnerving part of the movement was the quiet section at the very end scored for only percussion, bass clarinet and double basses, a mystical atmosphere suddenly broken by a single stroke of a military drum, the inspiration being a recent funeral of a firefighter in New York. As with the first movement, the fifth is inexorably drawn to a dissonant climax, with a serene calm taking over. Still, dissonance and pain are never far behind; there is no such thing as actual peace.

Even though Mahler’s Tenth is primarily a showcase for the strings, it didn’t stop the winds, especially the oboe and clarinet, from playing some particularly lovely solos. The extended tuba solo that along with single strikes of a military drum introduce the fifth movement was solidly played to harrowing effect. The work was described by Alma as being about the "certainty of death, the suffering of death, the contempt of death”. At Thursday’s performance, death was always present, first as tragedy, then as accepted reality.